23 July 2018

Book Review: The Pitcher and the Dictator

The lens through which we understand baseball is history.  The feats of today are automatically compared to those that came before.  The accumulation of home runs or strike outs are placed within a spectrum of greats that have played between those white lines.  History, the numbers, all of it is sacred.  Within that, we try to ignore, sometimes quite successfully, that our history is incomplete.  Our concept of greatness is stained with institutional prejudice.  When we think of the greats, we say Babe Ruth, but he certainly was an incomplete great.  His performance was against competition that was intentionally watered down due to concepts of white supremacy.  Baseball is tainted and that is why we does not reverentially whisper Josh Gibson's name.

And, yes, there were others who were among the best baseball had to offer, but were kept out of the game because baseball was racist.  You probably do not know about Luis Tiant (no, his father).  You probably do not fully understand Cool Papa Bell's brilliance.  You have been robbed of Tetelo.  You probably are unaware of the real Shohei Ohtani, the great Martin Dihigo.  Averell Smith mentions them and highlights Satchel Paige in his book "The Pitcher and the Dictator: Satchel Paige's Unlikely Season in the Dominican Republic."

To improve the optics of a future re-election of the ruthless dictator Rafael Trujillo, the esteemed members of Trujillo's political apparatus decided to throw a country-wide championship in Trujillo's honor with one club bearing his name.  To ensure the team named after Ciudad Trujillo (at the time, the new name for Santo Domingo), the two existing teams were merged into one.  However, they soon realized that with other teams stocking up on Cuban and Puerto Rican stars that the Trujillo team needed their own foreign talent.

The Negro Leagues were full of poorly paid talent that should have been showcased at the MLB level.  Trujillo's team was able to swoop in and throw silly money at Satchel Paige, who decided to jump off his current club and head to the island.  There, effectively as a VIP, he experienced life that was stunningly different from the United States where he suffered through extreme prejudice.  In the Dominican, all seemed welcome.  Whereas, in the States, Paige has to use special books, word of mouth, and sometimes suffer through empty stomachs or sleeping in abandoned box cars while on the road.

As the season wore on, Trujillo's team still floundered.  The club resorted to a full on raid of the Negro Leagues to develop what effectively was an All Star team that could have challenged for the World Series in the States.  The players were also now watched over by Trujillo's death squads to ensure they remained focused on winning.

The book is a fascinating exploration into the life of Trujillo as well as for life of black players in the 1930s.  The book dries up at times, but does well to not so much focus on every ball and strike, but to look at the context of the events.

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The Pitcher and the Dictator
by Averell Smith
University of Nebraska Press
212 pp.

2 comments:

PTCello said...

I really enjoy these book reviews, although I have not yet read nearly as many of the books themselves as I should. When you archive your site, which will be a very sad day, it would be nice if you would put the reviews together under a separate file for future reference.
I’m wondering if you can suggest a guide to recognizing pitches. I am constantly amazed that someone can identify a pitch by counting the revolutions it makes during its flight, I just can’t fathom that, but try as I might I’ve never been able to find the difference between a changeup or a curve and breaking ball and a two or four-seam fastball or a cutter.
I know what an ephus pitch is, though.
I have looked on YouTube for videos, but all of those videos assume that I have knowledge that I don’t. If you can point me towards a basic primer, that would be great.

Aaron Smith said...

Thank you for posting this. Looking for a new book to read and this seems like an excellent suggestion.